How to get into Harvard

Harvard University is the oldest and most respected college in America. The name is recognized worldwide. They offer an unsurpassed level of intellectual and career opportunities and a massive alumni base. But all of this comes at a price, and no I am talking about money. Yes Harvard is expensive, but their world renowned financial aid takes care of that. I am talking about hard work and preparation! And if you are determined to embark on the Harvard admission journey you need to be prepared for a challenge.

Getting in to Harvard is, for most, one of the biggest challenges they will face in their young life. On average Harvard accepts about 7% of all applicants. This means that 93% of those who apply to Harvard get a rejection letter! And yes they receive their fair share of unqualified “throw away” applications, but the vast majority of the tens of thousands of students rejected ARE qualified. Every year Harvard, and many of its most competitive counterparts, turn away dozens of students with perfect SAT and ACT scores, thousands of Valedictorians, and countless  4.0 students.  If being “perfect” is not enough then what is? The heart of the question comes down to what Harvard is looking for. The answer comes in the form of one of today’s hottest admissions buzzwords, wholeistic admissions. That means Harvard, and most other colleges for that matter, are considering the whole application and whole person when selecting applicants.  This is why it is so very important to understand what goes in to an application and excel at every part of it!

The first and most obvious thing you need to do when applying to a school like Harvard is excel in school. Yes lots of great student are turned down, but no poor students are ever admitted.  You must excel in the classroom to even consider Harvard as an option. However just getting straight A’s in a bunch of easy classes doesn’t tell them much about you, and this is one of the biggest mistakes applicants make. Selective colleges such as Harvard want you to take the hardest courses offered at your school. They will not penalize you for having fewer opportunities, but you need to make the most of what you do have. This means that if your school offers AP, IB, Honors, or Dual Credit courses you should take them. Focus the majority of your schedule on very challenging coursework, and if you still excel in those courses you are well on your way to being a competitive Harvard applicant.

Classes vary from one school to the next, and a 4.0 grade point average in one school is not necessarily as challenging to obtain as a 4.0 in others. Colleges know this, and in order to compare students from around the country and world to one another they use standardized tests. Depending on where you live you may be more familiar with the ACT or SAT test. Both work when applying to Harvard. You must of course score very well on these tests to have any chance of admissions to Harvard. Every year schools release a range for these test scores by telling us what the 25th and 75th percentile of admitted applicants had on their tests. If you fall within this range you are on the right track. Last year Harvard’s SAT range was 2100-2390 out of a possible 2400. The ACT range was 31-34 out of a possible 36. If your scores do not meet this standard the best advice anyone can give you is to practice. Simply put, taking a test is a science in and of itself, and the more experience you have with the type of questions asked, format of the tests, and pacing strategy, the better you will do. This can be achieved by taking practice courses, or simply doing practice tests out of the prep books at your schools library or guidance office. Practice, practice, practice!

It is also important to note that unlike many other schools Harvard requires some additional testing. If you elect to take the ACT you need to take the optional writing portion of the test, and no matter which you take you will need to submit three SATII subject tests of your own choosing. There are dozens of options for those tests, including several in math and science, literature, history, and most foreign languages, so pick the ones you believe you will excel at.

Earlier we established that it is not all about the numbers at Harvard, but what else is there? This is where your extracurricular activities come in. Your application should tell your story. This means that depending on your potential major, career goals, and so on you should be focusing on certain areas. For example an engineer or physicist should be good at and enjoy math. What you do outside of school is important, and how you present it will depend on your individual application. All in all, when selecting what activities to do, the best advice is to do what you love. Admissions committees are good at what they do, and they can tell when you throw join dozens of clubs and teams just for your application. What they want to see is a passion!  The best way to show this is innovation and leadership. Find the activities you enjoy the most and work hard to obtain leadership positions. Once in a position or even if you are not, do as much as you can to advance the club or team.  If your passion is not represented in your school or community, blaze a new trail.  Starting a new successful club, business, charity organization, or team looks great on an application. Again, you want them to see you for whom you are, so follow your passions as intensely as possible, wherever they may lead. Also remember that although many Harvard applicants have amazing activities like laboratory research, professional musician status, national officer of a club etc. that it is always advisable to make the best of your situation. If these things where never made available to you, or do not fit your skills and passions, things like sports, a job, student organizations, community service, and owning a business are all worthwhile and should merit a place on your application.

Obviously extracurricular activities do not tell the whole story of who you are. This is where the application essay comes in. Harvard wants to know as much about what makes you unique as they can. What will you bring to their campus that no one else can? The essay is a chance to express that. Books and books exist on writing the perfect application essay, but it comes down to three simple tips. First choose your topic well. Be sure it fits in with the story your application is trying to tell, and be sure it is something you can write about. Divisive issues can make good essays, but they usually do not. Instead it is best to write an insightful or self-reflective essay. Second, be genuine! It is easy to tell when you are stretching the truth to impress the admissions committee. Instead, be yourself and let the results be what they may. Also, steer clear of just listing your accomplishments since there is already space on the application for that. Focus on a specific, impactful event or idea. Thirdly, proofread, proofread and proofread again. It is advisable to have you application read over by several other people before sending it off. Mistakes in your essay come off as careless and show a lack of effort and time, an easy way to be counted off in the admissions process.

The last major components of your application are the Letters of Recommendation. These are the same for Harvard as pretty much any school, but at Harvard you need them to be fantastic. These are simply letters form an adult outside your family who knows you well and can attest to your accomplishments and character.  They key to great recommendations is simply to do your best all of the time, and be a respectful and enjoyable person to be around. It also helps to select a teacher, coach, counselor, or employer who knows you on a personal level, and who is a good writer because both are very important.

You have your application all ready, your test scores are great, and your essay is stunning and your recommendations glowing! What is the last step to applying to Harvard? Have a backup plan. With the sheer volume of applicants at Harvard not every great applicant can get in. Sometimes the selection can come down to something as trivial as what state you are from, or even which applications were reviewed before and after yours. Keep your hopes up, but apply elsewhere too. When applying for competitive admission it is advisable to apply to several competitive schools that you would be happy to attend, and some less competitive “safety” schools. Find safeties that you will be content attending and do a good job of applying to them, because it is always possible that you will not get in to your dream school, and you can a will still be successful elsewhere if you are prepared. Good luck at Harvard or wherever your journey may lead you!